New Era Colorado

Lizzy Stephan, New Era Colorado’s executive director, says Amendment V was a priority, “but it wasn't our only priority.” (Colorado Politics file)

A year and a half ago, it sounded like a slam dunk.

Near the end of Colorado’s 2017 legislative session, a broad, bipartisan group of lawmakers referred a constitutional amendment to this year’s ballot asking voters to lower the minimum age to serve in the General Assembly from 25 to 21.

The question, dubbed Amendment V, had endorsements from the Colorado Young Democrats and the Colorado Federation of Young Republicans, as well as legislators from across the political spectrum.

State Sen. Mike Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and one of his chamber’s most liberal members, sponsored the legislation with the reliably conservative state Sen. Vicki Marble, a Fort Collins Republican.

The argument was simple.

“We ask 21-year-olds to pay taxes, yet they can’t be involved in the legislation determining how the state spends its money. I think it’s only fair,” Merrifield said when the proposal was making its way through the Legislature.

Only three states — Colorado, Utah and Arizona — require all of their lawmakers to be at least 25. Nearly every other state lets 21-year-olds run for the legislature, and a few even set the minimum age at 18. (Some states set higher age requirements for their upper chamber but let 21-year-olds run for the House.)

Merrifield said he was inspired to run the legislation after some young campaign volunteers approached him after the previous election.

“They were frustrated with the fact that even though they had worked hard for candidates, they themselves couldn’t run for office because they weren’t 25 years old,” he said. “That concept was intriguing to me, and I thought they had a good argument. We tell these young people they have all the responsibilities and don’t give them the right to represent themselves.”

Colorado has had the same age requirement for its lawmakers since the state constitution was ratified in 1876, so it would take a constitutional amendment to change it.

Lawmakers agreed it was time.

The resolution sponsored by Merrifield and Marble passed out of both chambers by wide margins, albeit with more support from Republican lawmakers in the Senate than in the House, where only a handful signed on. Out of the gate, it drew the enthusiastic support of campaign powerhouse New Era Colorado, which exists to encourage young people to participate in politics.

“We’re grateful to our legislators for putting this question to the voters,” Lizzy Stephan, New Era Colorado’s executive director, told Colorado Politics last year, shortly after the measure had passed. “Colorado has long led the country in making our elections more fair, modern and accessible, but in allowing young people to hold elected office we’re needing to play catch up a bit.” She added: “We will be enthusiastically supporting this ballot measure.”

But by the time the votes were counted on election night last month, Amendment V had been defeated.

The measure, which hadn’t faced any organized opposition, went down hard, losing by almost 28 percentage points. (A decade ago, the same proposal lost at the ballot box by just 7 percentage points.)

The only statewide ballot measure that got fewer votes, in fact, was Amendment 75, the “millionaire” rule, which would have raised campaign contribution limits in state races when a self-funding candidate gave him or herself lots of money.

What happened?

Amid one of the most crowded ballots in memory — state voters weighed in on 13 constitutional amendments and proposed statutes — it appears the measure got lost in the shuffle, without anyone mounting a full-throated (or well-funded) campaign on its behalf.

The woman who ran what amounted to a threadbare campaign supporting Amendment V said backers had hoped endorsements and passive support of the measure — a lot of green check marks showed up next to the proposal in ballot guides — would be enough to pull it across the finish line.

“There were so many things on the ballot this year, people got a little overwhelmed,” said Emma Donahue, chair of the Colorado Young Democrats and the agent for Let Coloradans Serve, a committee formed to help pass the measure.

The committee raised $1,000 — in a single donation from the Young Democrats — and spent most of that printing a flier that it made available to party offices around the state and anyone who wanted to distribute it.

“There weren’t a lot of organized efforts,” Donahue acknowledged. “It was a busy year and it kind of got lost. It was just a rough year to try to do it.”

Her GOP counterpart, Lyndsay Pierzina, president of the Colorado Federation of Young Republicans, said her group had been split — “We had a very heated conversation about whether to endorse it,” she said — and wound up staying mostly on the sidelines for the election.

“The biggest reason we got behind it is we are for young people getting involved,” she told Trail Mix. “We did end up endorsing it, but much past that, people started looking at it and said, 'I'm not sure this is actually going to work in our benefit.’”

New Era’s Stephan told Trail Mix the ballot measure was a priority, “but it wasn't our only priority.”

The group promoted Amendment V in its voter guides but didn’t do much beyond that.

“We were watching all the different ballot measures,” she said. “A ballot that long — we were pretty nervous what that meant for young folks. First and foremost, we’re always trying to boost young voter turnout.”

As far as revisiting the question, Stephan said she didn’t expect it in the upcoming legislative session.

“There are a lot of different types of reforms to better increase young people's voter access, making the process to register to vote, to cast a ballot, even more straightforward and accessible,” she said. “That’s probably a higher priority for us moving forward than this measure.”

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